What do bluebirds eat in winter? What seed can I serve to finches and cardinals that sparrows won’t eat? What is this weird bird in my backyard?!
Each month, Birds & Blooms readers send in their burning questions to birding experts, Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman, who are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world.
Got a bird question for Kenn and Kimberly? Submit your questions here! They may appear here or in a future issue of the magazine.
Question: A few winters ago, four bluebirds spent time in the nesting boxes in my yard. What do they eat during the cold months? Are bluebirds supposed to migrate south? —Thomas Bruce of Wayland, Michigan
Kenn and Kimberly: Many bluebirds do stay as far north as Michigan for the winter, although they’re found only in limited areas. Wild fruits and berries make up the main part of their winter diet, so they favor areas where they can consume fruits of red cedar, dogwood, hackberry, sumac, wild grape, poison ivy and other plants. They also eat any insects they can find, and may come to mealworm feeders. In cold weather, they usually sleep in tree cavities or other holes, so they may have been using your nesting boxes to roost in at night. (Read more: 7 Tips for Attracting Bluebirds)
Question: My neighbor thinks this is a female goldfinch, but my husband says it’s a female junco. What do you think? —Patrice Iacovoni of Waterford, Michigan
Kenn and Kimberly: One of the trickiest birds in North America, often overlooked or misidentified, is the female house sparrow. She has some strong stripes on the back, but from this front view she looks absolutely plain, with no markings at all. And this one looks a little odd because her feathers are fluffed up against the cold. To identify this bird, we look at the size and shape of the bill, the shape of the tail, the slight pale area above and behind the eye, the overall dusty color, and the sheer lack of actual markings. (Read more: How to Identify Mystery Birds)
Question: What seed can I serve to finches and cardinals that sparrows won’t eat? When I fill my feeders, sparrows take over and scare other birds away. —Roger Schuette of Staunton, Illinois
Kenn and Kimberly: Unfortunately, house sparrows eat practically anything. You can discourage them a little and lure finches by putting out Nyjer (thistle) seed. A tube feeder with very short perches may be hard for house sparrows to use, while it attracts goldfinches, pine siskins and other small finches. A sock feeder for thistle (available at any wild bird store) is another good way to present this seed. For cardinals, offer sunflower seeds in a raised feeder, and avoid using inexpensive seed mixes. You’ll probably still have house sparrows, but can possibly keep them from taking over. (Read more: 6 Ways to Attract More Cardinals)